Every year, on April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. Songs about the natural world, including those by Woody Guthrie, have been around since the 40s, and many of the greatest songwriters have penned compositions about the planet on which we all exist. The best Earth Day songs, then, reflect not only the ways in which our planet has changed over the years, but also the ways in which we have expressed concern over its survival. As global warming continues to wreak havoc, acres of forest are cut down without a thought for tomorrow, and finding a peaceful oasis on our old Earth is harder than ever before, it seems clear that these songs will only become more relevant.
To mark Earth Day, we have selected our 30 best environmental songs. Though we weren’t able to squeeze in all our favorites – and had to leave out wonderful songs by Ken Boothe (“The Earth Dies Screaming”), The Byrds (“Hungry Planet”), Peter Gabriel (“Here Comes The Flood”) and Country Joe McDonald (“Save The Whales”) – we scoured reggae, jazz, country, folk, soul, rock and pop for songs both disturbing and inspiring.
Here’s to this amazing endangered beautiful world of ours.
30: Bo Diddley: Pollution (1971)
Bo Diddley’s “Pollution” was recorded, appropriately, at New York’s Soundview Environmental Studios, and the song appeared on the album Another Dimension. The five-minute funky single is an angry protest song about the dangers of “throwing garbage in the street.” The striking cover photograph for the Chess Records single featured a stack of discarded grimy Woolsey paint tins. The song is helped by some pulsating brass work and backing vocals from Kathy Alson and Leslie Zimei. Diddley, one of the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, relocated to Peralta, New Mexico, at the time he recorded “Pollution.” Diddley then served for two and a half years as Deputy Sheriff in the Valencia County Citizens’ Patrol. The musician said after growing up in an industrialized Chicago, he enjoyed moving to somewhere with “beautiful scenery.”
29: Joan Baez: Rejoice In The Sun (1971)
Silent Running was a cult environmental-themed science fiction thriller, starring Bruce Dern, which was about a time when plant life on Earth had become extinct. Folk singer Joan Baez recorded two songs for the soundtrack, the most famous of which is “Rejoice In The Sun,” a song that celebrates the power of natural life. The song was composed by Peter Schickele and Diane Lampert, the only lyricist jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley ever worked with. Baez’s version of “Rejoice In The Sun,” which had “Silent Running” as the B-side, was issued as a single by Decca Records in 1971, before the film was even screened. Baez was an activist who marched side by side with Martin Luther King against racial segregation. She was also once arrested for protesting the Vietnam War.
28: Miley Cyrus: Wake Up America (2008)
Greta Thunberg is the 21st-century’s most famous teenage environmental activist – the young Swede even performed on a 2019 climate song with The 1975 – but perhaps the most famous environmental song by a teenager was Miley Cyrus’s hit “Wake Up America,” which the former Disney starlet released on her 2008 album Breakout. The lyrics, co-written by Cyrus with Antonina Armato, Tim James, and Aaron Dudley, are simple and heartfelt (“Everything I read/global warming, going green/I don’t know what all this means/but it seems to be saying/wake up, America, we’re all in this together”), and were important because the platinum-certified album reached a huge young fanbase and brought environmental issues into their consciousness.
27: Depeche Mode: The Landscape Is Changing (1983)
Alan Wilder joined Depeche Mode in 1982 after answering an anonymous advertisement in Melody Maker for a young synthesizer player. He quickly established himself as an influential member of the band and his songwriting became an important part of the band’s repertoire. It was Wilder who composed the band’s urgent message about “taking good care of the world” in the environmental song “The Landscape Is Changing,” which appeared on the 1983 album Construction Time Again. The bleak lyrics – “The landscape is crying/Thousands of acres of forest are dying” – came at a time when the world was seeing a marked acceleration in deforestation.
26: Loudon Wainwright: Hard Day On The Planet (1986)
Satire about environmentalism is a hard trick to pull off in songwriting, but few are better equipped to do it than the droll doomsayer Loudon Wainwright. His 1986 song “Hard Day On The Planet” was eerily prescient, with lyrics about “a new disease every day” and a reference to the burning forests of California. “In California, the body counts keep getting higher/It’s evil out there, man that state is always on fire,” sings Wainwright, on a track that features the deft acoustic bass work of the great Danny Thompson. “I wrote it in the mid-80s when it seemed like everything was going to end. And so, it’s kind of a perennial, I suppose,” Wainwright joked in 2016.
25: Jack Johnson: The 3 R’s (2006)
“Three is a magic number” sings Jack Johnson on the 2006 song “The 3 R’s.” The magic three in this case are “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” the core elements of the 3R Initiative promoting the effective use of resources and materials, a policy agreed on at the G8 Sea Island Summit in June 2004. Singer-songwriter Johnson has always been passionate about Earth Day-related causes and this wonderfully upbeat song, with echoing lyrics that are perfect for youngsters, features funky keyboard playing from Zach Gill and backing from a 13-strong children’s chorus. The track was issued on Jack Johnson and Friends: Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies, part of the soundtrack to the film Curious George.
24: Talking Heads: (Nothing But) Flowers (1988)
The line “And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention,” taken from the Talking Heads song “(Nothing But) Flowers,” still stands as a sharp commentary on the state of denial that still afflicts much of the modern world. The line was used by Bret Easton Ellis as an epigraph to his novel American Psycho. “(Nothing But) Flowers,” co-written by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, is a sumptuous Afropop dance song that images a future in which the world has been reclaimed by greenery. The embittered protagonist of the song finds himself longing for Pizza Hut restaurants, 7-Elevens, and electrical labor-saving devices such as lawnmowers and microwaves in his green post-Apocalyptic world. “(Nothing But) Flowers” is a witty, satirical song about the blessings of nature, one that benefits from the backing vocals of Kirsty MacColl and the shimmering guitar of Johnny Marr, along with African percussionists Brice Wassy and Abdou M’Boup.
23: John Denver: Earth Day Every Day (Celebrate) (1990)
A huge supporter of Earth Day, John Denver, known for his iconic songs “Annie’s Song” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” was one of 20th-century music’s great champions of environmental causes. In 1990, the year he released an album called Earth Songs, he was given the first World Ecology Award by the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Earth Songs, an album that was originally available only by mail order, included his joyously positive composition “Earth Day Every Day (Celebrate),” which urged people to “celebrate land and sea/celebrate you and me.” Denver, who went on to launch an innovative tree-planting scheme in America, remained concerned about the environment. The last song he penned before his death in 1997 was an environmental song about Yellowstone Park.
22: Lil Dicky: Earth (2019)
“Let’s save the world,” tweeted Justin Bieber, when he confirmed that he was one of the superstars joining Lil Dicky (Dave Burd) on the animated music video for his charity song “Earth.” Released right around Earth Day 2019, Rapper Lil Dicky, star of the hilarious television show Dave, eventually persuaded Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Snoop Dogg, Sia, John Legend, Katy Perry, and Leonardo DiCaprio to be part of his project to voice animals joining in to save Earth (Miley Cyrus voiced an elephant), in a video directed by Tony Yacenda, Nigel Tierney, and Federico Heller. The lyrics take issue with people who deny that global warming “is a real thing.” The song raised nearly a million dollars to help combat climate change and fund COVID-19 support. “It really kind of started out as, ‘I love animals. I’d love to make a song where different artists play the role of different animals,’” Lil Dicky told Time. “What started as a silly joke of an idea along the way became the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
21: John Prine: Paradise (1971)
In 1971, singer-songwriter John Prine wrote his marvelous song “Paradise” about the environmental damages of strip mining and the destruction it wreaked on small communities. “Paradise,” which was also known as “Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train,” was about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the town his parents had grown up in – and how it was ruined by a coal company. Among the poetic, moving verses is: “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay/Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking/Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
20: John Martyn: One World (1977)
The song “One World” was recorded in a Berkshire barn. John Martyn remembered it as a time when the adjoining farmhouse was filled with Jamaican friends and their children who were in England to visit Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. The title track of his masterpiece album features one of Martyn’s greatest vocal performances, against his echo-saturated guitar. The song has a beautiful simplicity, as he sings, “It’s one world, like it or not/It’s one world, believe it or not/It’s one world.” Nearly three decades later, when Martyn was reflecting on the song, he believed he had captured a zeitgeist moment. “‘One World’ has now become a phrase used all over the television,” Martyn said. “Took ’em a long time to f__king realize. I don’t think many people knew the expression before then.” The tune is superb – a perfect expression of how we are all individual and universal at the same time.
19: U2: Indian Summer Sky (2010)
Bono’s longing for spiritual renewal was reflected in his song “Indian Summer Sky,” which is about the desire to return to a more organic world (“the seasons change, and so do I”). Bono wrote the song in New York and said he was trying to convey “a sense of spirit trapped in a concrete jungle.” Sixteen years earlier, U2 had allowed a live version of their song “Until The End Of The World” to appear on the album Alternative NRG, which raised funds for Greenpeace. U2 were joined by other bands, such as Sonic Youth and UB40, on an album recorded live with a solar-powered mobile facility. Guitarist Brian May of Queen contributed the song “New Damage.”
18: Dar Williams: Go To The Woods (2012)
Since the dawn of industrialisation, poets and songwriters have been extolling the spiritual and mental health benefits of getting out into nature. Dar Williams wrote the powerful song “Go To The Woods” in 2012, a composition that expressed her fears that the green spaces of the world are disappearing. Touring musician Williams devotes her spare time to environmental causes, not least her Give Bees A Camp project, which combines concerts and planting bee-friendly gardens for schoolchildren. Williams has also covered Joe Strummer’s rousing song “Johnny Appleseed” (“If you’re after getting the honey, hey/Then you don’t go killing all the bees”).
17: Johnny Cash: Don’t Go Near The Water (1974)
On his 1974 album Ragged Old Flag, country singer Johnny Cash addressed the political issue of the environment, through the device of a nostalgic song in which a father warns his son that they cannot eat the fish they are trying to catch. Though the acoustic mood of the song is upbeat – Cash was joined on guitar by Carl Perkins – the lyrics are bleak: “There was a time the air was clean/And you could see forever ’cross the plains/The wind was sweet as honey/And no one had ever heard of acid rain.”
16: The Beach Boys: Don’t Go Near The Water (1971)
Mike Love, who co-wrote with Al Jardine a different song also called “Don’t Go Near The Water,” said he hated the ignorance that made people “violate the laws of nature.” Love and Jardine were encouraged by The Beach Boys’ then manager, Jack Rieley, to write an environmental song for the band, and the result was the anti-pollution plea that became the opening track for their 1971 album, Surf’s Up. The prescient lyrics about man poisoning the sea were sung by Brian Wilson and the band. The downbeat mood of the song was heightened by the eerie Moog synthesizer playing of Daryl Dragon.
15: Woody Guthrie: Talking Dust Bowl Blues (1940)
Photographs of the dust storms that wrecked southern America in the 30s are still shocking, and the devastation and migration they caused prompted Woody Guthrie to write his brilliant album Dust Bowl Ballads. “I met millions of good folks trying to hang on and to stay alive with the dust cutting down every hope,” said Guthrie, who made poetry out of despair.
14: Tom Lehrer: Pollution (1965)
In “Pollution,” the brilliant satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer warned visitors to America about the environmental problems of his home country, and the way his nation’s air and water was being blighted. A short film of “Pollution,” featuring a cartoon of a bird playing the piano at a rubbish dump, combined with scenes of industrial contamination across the States, was made for the US Communicable Disease Centre. The bitingly funny lyrics included the verse “Just go out for a breath of air/And you’ll be ready for Medicare/The city streets are really quite a thrill/If the hoods don’t get you, the monoxide will.”
13: Randy Newman: Burn On (1970)
Randy Newman was poleaxed by back pain and lying on the floor in 1969 when a television news item came on about the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, literally catching fire once again, because it was filled with oil waste. His disturbing song, sung at a maudlin pace with slow piano, is full of potent imagery: “The Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams/Burn on, big river/Burn on.”
12: Rush: The Trees
Rush lyricist Neil Peart once commissioned some drum makers to build him an entire kit from a 1,500-year-old piece of Romanian wood. Peart recalled that he wrote his song “The Trees” in “about five minutes,” after seeing a cartoon picture of trees “carrying on like fools.” He said: “I thought, What if trees acted like people? So I saw the song as a cartoon, really, and wrote it that way.”
11: Queen: Is This The World We Created…? (1984)
Queen singer Freddie Mercury said that he sometimes felt helpless about the state of the planet and that was the reason he and Brian May penned “Is This the World We Created…?.” Mercury went on to explain that he and May “were thinking about poverty going on all around the world and that’s why the track came about… it was a way of showing that I can do my bit.” The song, which reflected the suffering of children, came at the time of natural disasters in Africa which had resulted in terrible famine. Queen performed the song, which was on their 1984 album, The Works, as the encore to their famous Live Aid show in 1985.
10: Beatles: Mother Nature’s Son (1968)
John Lennon, who was listed along with Paul McCartney as the co-writer of “Mother Nature’s Son” – a gorgeous paean to nature that appeared in 1968’s The White Album – said the song was originally inspired by a lecture from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi while the Beatles were in India. McCartney, who said he’d always had a “deep love of nature,” said that he drew on more personal experiences. “I seem to remember writing “Mother Nature’s Son” at my dad’s house in Liverpool… I’ve always loved the Nat King Cole song called Nature Boy and it was inspired by that song.” The Beatles cut 24 versions of the song before they were happy with the completed version. This wonderful song has also been covered by Harry Nilsson, John Denver, and Sheryl Crow.
9: Jackson Browne: Before The Deluge (1974)
On his 1974 environmental song, “Before The Deluge,” Jackson Browne told the story of his generation’s ideals and illusion, and their fall from grace. The song was eerily prophetic, with its stark warning: “Some of them were angry/At the way the earth was abused/By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power/And they struggled to protect her from them/Only to be confused/By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour.” The song was from the album Late For The Sky, which featured Jai Winding, the son of Verve Records jazz trombonist Kai Winding, on keyboards. Versions have been recorded by musicians as diverse as Joan Baez and Christy Moore.
8: Cat Stevens: Where Do The Children Play? (1970)
Cat Stevens wrote his song “Where Do The Children Play?” for the 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman. The song reflects many of his concerns about poverty, war, ecological disaster, pollution, and the future of the human race. Stevens became a Muslim later in the decade and is now known as Yusuf Islam. He remains committed to what he called “the harmony and balance of the universe”, and in May 2019 gave his support to Europe’s first green mosque, in Cambridge, which was clad in solar panels and surrounded by apple trees.
7: Michael Jackson: Earth Song (1995)
“Earth Song,” which appeared on the album HIStory: Past, Present And Future, Book I, was the best of Michael Jackson’s socially conscious songs. This sweeping track about the environment and welfare was a No.1 hit in the UK and went on to receive a Grammy nomination. It was notable for its powerful video, too.
6: Bob Marley: Sun Is Shining (1978)
Bob Marley died in 1981, but his music continues to inspire people who love protest songs and care about the environment. In 2019, for example, Chicago’s The Rock And Roll Playhouse held an Earth Day celebration concert featuring tunes by the great master of reggae. Marley’s gorgeous song “Sun Is Shining” was first recorded in the 60s and re-recorded for the album Kaya in 1978. Island Records boss Chris Blackwell later recalled, “The original version of “Sun Is Shining” was produced by Lee Perry. I loved his production, which was very sparse. But the version we re-recorded for Kaya has a great atmosphere, too. We tried to reflect the essence of the song, which is saying the sun is shining but don’t forget that people are suffering too.”
5: Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi (1971)
“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii,” Mitchell explained in 1996. “I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.” Mitchell’s mesmerizing song has been covered by Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, and Janet Jackson.
4: Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (1962)
Bob Dylan was only 21 when he wrote the beautiful lyrics, such as “I’ve stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains”, in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the iconic protest song in which he warned of an impending apocalypse. In 2009, before a United Nations climate change conference began in Denmark, the UN Environment Programme released a rare live recording of Dylan performing his song-poem set to dramatic photographs of shrunken ice caps, barren landscapes, and devastated lives.
3: Neil Young: After The Gold Rush (1970)
The mysterious, multi-layered “After The Gold Rush” is full of different themes and meanings, but there is one thing at the heart of the song: “‘After The Gold Rush” is an environmental song,” said Neil Young. Dolly Parton has recorded several versions it. The line “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” is memorably chilling, and has been updated by Young, who now sings “in the 21st Century” in concert. Young also wrote “Be The Rain,” a song that calls on the big oil companies to stop ruining the planet. In 1985, Willie Nelson, Young, and John Mellencamp set up Farm Aid to increase awareness about the importance of family farms. Young has remained a committed environmental activist and in 2018 he criticized President Trump for his denial of climate-change science.
2: Marvin Gaye: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (1971)
The beautiful voice of Marvin Gaye rings out in despair as he sings “Where did all the blue skies go?” on his Motown classic “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which was written for his 1971 album, What’s Going On. At the time, Motown boss Berry Gordy had not heard the word “ecology,” and Gaye’s masterful song may have been one of the first to deal with the mercury poisoning of fish. This is a sorrowful masterpiece and, given what we now know has happened to the environment in the past half-century, seems a moment of musical genius and foresight.
1: Louis Armstrong: What A Wonderful World (1967)
“What A Wonderful World” is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming songs of all time – and all because of the heartfelt warmth in the singing of the jazz legend Louis Armstrong, a man who was already in failing health when he recorded the two-minute gem, written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss. Lush instrumentation introduces a magnificent song that opens with such memorable lines: “I see trees of green, red roses, too/I see them bloom for me and you/And I think to myself: What a wonderful world.” It’s good to end on a note of positivity – so treat yourself on Earth Day, enjoy a bit of sunshine if you can, and savor again the beauty of Satchmo’s hit.
Think we’ve missed any of the best songs about Earth Day or the environment in general? Let us know in the comments section below.